Mark Mitchell is a preventive medicine physician trained in public health and an Associate Professor of Climate Change, Energy, and Environmental Health Equity at George Mason University
On a cool rainy Monday morning in May, the headquarters of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) was buzzing with activity: young people in shorts and tee shirts, 30-somethings in business attire, and elderly people hobbling with walking canes. The building, nestled on a street in Buffalo, New York, had been an abandoned school for many years before it was reclaimed by the community and turned into a community center with arts classes, office space, home for a theater company, meeting space, and PUSH Buffalo headquarters. PUSH Buffalo was responsible for renovating this building and organizing this multi-ethnic, low-income community into a force to be reckoned with.
In partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health and Climate Solutions Program, PUSH Buffalo will spend the next two years evaluating strategies for the integrated climate and health action of its program PUSH Green, a community-based energy efficiency program in Buffalo, New York.
Operating an energy efficiency program may seem like a simple straightforward effort—even a bit esoteric for low-income communities that might have many other more pressing challenges. Like other environmental justice organizations, PUSH Buffalo understands that many problems in low-income communities and communities of color are more complex and interrelated than they seem –and the solutions need to be more comprehensive.
Take, for example, Luz Velez, a PUSH Buffalo volunteer. She was a working single mother with a low-income and was thrilled to be able to buy a home for her family. However, the home that she was able to purchase was an older home, and was not in good repair. Her heating bill climbed to more than $500 during the cold winter months, which she could not afford. She was devastated when her son asked her why they had to sleep in their clothes with no heat. Luz’ health gradually declined as she became sick with an ill-defined respiratory condition that lasted for months, and eventually made her unable to work. Later, she would discover black mold in a back room of her house that had become wet from the leaks from holes in her roof. Her doctor told her that this may be the cause of her respiratory distress, but she could not afford to remove the mold or fix the roof.
Luz was in deep despair and felt overwhelmed. She felt trapped in her home, but was afraid that if she told anyone about her situation, she might lose her home and her son, and have no place to go. Then one day, someone knocked on her door from PUSH-Buffalo. They told her about their energy efficiency program that could reduce her heating bill and invited her to a neighborhood meeting to learn more. At the time, Luz did not trust anyone and felt that her situation was beyond hope. She later asked her friends and neighbors about PUSH and was persuaded to attend a meeting, where they seemed to be advocating for people like her. She was eventually persuaded to let someone into her home to determine what could be done.
Unlike traditional energy efficiency and weatherization programs, PUSH has a suite of programs and services available to meet the unique and varied needs of low wealth communities. She was accepted into their program despite barriers that made it difficult for her to access credit, the fact that she had mold and asbestos in her house, the fact that she needed a new roof, and even that she was not in an emotional state that would allow her to fill out the myriad of unintelligible forms for the programs and financial support that she needed. Any of these factors can be enough to prevent low-income people from accessing most energy efficiency programs throughout the country. PUSH worked with Luz to develop a step-by-step plan to identify the support that she needed to convert her home to a safe, warm, healthy home that she could afford and be proud of. This enhanced weatherization process greatly improved her health, reduced her energy bills by more than 40%, and gave her a warm, safe place to live, as well as providing the possibility of wealth generation experienced by most homeowners.
By providing such services to homeowners and renters in this low-income, mostly Latino, African-American, and immigrant/refugee community, PUSH is helping to revitalize the West Side Neighborhood and the City of Buffalo while conserving energy used for home heating, increasing personal and community resilience, and improving health. Reduced energy use means reduced greenhouse gases and air pollution from burning fossil fuels, where those living closest to natural gas and home heating oil facilities are more likely to be people of color. As a result, these communities can see immediate health benefits in reduction of asthma and other respiratory and cardiac conditions.
At 261,000 people, Buffalo, New York is still the second largest city in New York State, despite having lost half of its population since 1950. It is a rustbelt city to rival Detroit and Cleveland, which were also devastated by rapid deindustrialization after the closure of steel mills and automobile plants.
It is not an accident that PUSH-Buffalo has so many programs that are tailored to meet the needs of low-income, multi-ethnic homeowners and renters. They have been organizing grassroots impacted residents, like Luz, for over a decade to change state policies to make housing and other programs, such as energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, available and accessible to vulnerable communities in ways that overcome common obstacles of poverty and disenfranchisement and invest in the people and communities that need it most.
Just like it transformed an old abandoned neighborhood schoolhouse into a multipurpose community jewel, PUSH-Buffalo has had success in restoring the disinvested West Side neighborhood into a functional community that is improving its health, equity, and resilience through housing programs, including weatherization and energy efficiency. Their evaluation and storytelling over the next two years promises to empower vulnerable communities to pursue similar solutions.